The Fukushima Alternative

On March 11th, 2011, a large earthquake caused a large tsunami in Japan, and the two historic events wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The power plant had six boiling water reactors of the kind used around the world in many nuclear power plants. Three of the six reactors suffered a meltdown, and containment structures meant to contain a meltdown were also breached. This is regarded as one of the worst nuclear disasters to ever happen, possibly the worst of all, though comparing major nuclear disasters to each other is hard for a number of reasons.

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, Ana Miller and I produced a number of updates no Fukushima, in which Ana’s studiously assembled list of sources was organized, assembled, and commented on. These “Fukushima Updates” together with a number of other posts on Fukushima can all be found HERE.

Yesterday I looked up how much the Fukushima disaster is likely to cost when the cleanup is all over. This is a very difficult number to estimate, but various sources put the cost at between 250 and 500 billion US dollars. For the present purposes, I’m going to assume that the actual cost will be at the higher end of the scale, and I’m going to take that money and do something else with it.

So, I’ve got 500 billion dollars and I want to spend it on non-carbon based non-nuclear energy production. What will that get me?

I’ve only done a few rough calculations, and I welcome you to correct or add or revise in the comments below. I am not an expert on this topic and I am easily confused. Please correct me in the comments but be nice about it I’m sensitive.

According to the good people at Blue Horizon Energy, which installs home solar panels and such, I can have a 625 square foot solar installation that would produce about 5000 W of power for about $20,000 dollars. Why would I want such a thing? Because I want to put it on the high school that is down the street from my house. Oh, I also want to put one on the middle school. And the strip mall where the grocery store is. I know this would be a bit more expensive, but I also want to put one or two over the parking lot at the strip mall, so cars underneath it would not get covered with snow but could hook up during the day to charge their batteries (for people with electric cars). And so on.

With the money to be spent ultimately on the Fukushima cleanup, I can install approximately 25 million of these things at current costs. I have a feeling, though, that I could get a discount. Also, if I was going to spend 500 billion buckaroos on solar, that itself would help drive down costs because costs of solar energy are dropping fast. I’m thinking I could probably squeeze 30 million units out of my budget.

There are about 100,000 public schools in the united states, a bit over that number if you count private schools. But I have 30 million units! There are about 30,000 towns and cities that probably have a city center, city hall, public works department, or some other building that a unit could go on. There are about 35,000 super markets. I’m going to make a guess and figure that if there are 30,000 supermarkets there must be at least 50,000 strip malls. There are probably several tens of thousands of parking structures, private or public. Imma guess 50,000 of those.

So far, then, we have over a quarter of a million places to put my solar panel arrays in a manner that would involve a reasonable level of management and negotiation, but we have 25 million arrays. OK, so maybe we’ll put more than one array on most of these structures. Maybe we can fit four on average, since some strip malls are large. Then we add big box stores that are not on strip malls. There’s almost 1,800 targets so there must be roughly the same number of Wall-marts. There are movie theaters and many other places with flat roofs where it would be fairly easy to install a big bunch of solar panels and still cover only part of the roof (fire departments do not like it when you cover the entire roof). And then, of course, there are farms. Lots and lots of farms with barns and other buildings on which a solar panel could be stores.

In the end, we can install 25,000,000 units that are worth 5000 Watts each. That is 125,000,000,000 W. I’m assuming that this is potential power and not realized capacity, which may be as low as 15%, but could be higher. Hell, let’s just say 20%. That’s 20 gW. Could that be right?

Putting it another way, we can install 16,250,000,000 square feet or 583 square miles of solar power.

Or maybe we should just use the money to build a smaller number of thermal solar installations like the IVANPAH project in California. There, they spent 2.2 billion dollars to develop solar power facilities that produce 392 MW (That’s a bit smaller than a single reactor of the type found at Fukushima). With 500 billion dollars, we could produce over 225 of these plants, which in turn would produce over 89,000 MW of power. That’s like building over 170 new nuclear reactors (distributed among a smaller number of plants, presumably). There are currently about 435 nuclear plants making energy around the world and in a few years that number will rise to about 500. Many of them have multiple reactors. Let’s assume for a moment that there are an average of four reactors per plant, so my 170 new reactors is equal to about 10% of the installed nuclear power base.

So, one way to look at it is this: The cost of Fukushima’s cleanup is equal to about 10% of the existing nuclear power industry’s energy production capacity. Looking it another way, we can retrofit every school district, municipality, parking garage, and farm with enough solar energy to make a big dent in their daily use of energy.

What would you do with the money?

Happy Anniversary Fukushima. Also, thank you Ana for all your work on the Fukushima feed.

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24 thoughts on “The Fukushima Alternative

  1. I think there’s a stray ” mega” in your calculation – should be 100 billion Watts (or 100,000 MegaWatts, which ends up comparable to your later figure)

  2. I like the calculations, I think it is well worth thinking about how much stuff costs, both ways, but I really don’t like the “Happy Anniversary Fukushima” you closed the article with. Such sad anniversaries are a extra hard time for survivors and lots of people lost family and friends, so to me the irony seems insensitive, though I don’t really think that is how you meant it.

  3. Putting all your eggs in one energy basket is not a good idea, and solar is not a universal solution. Wind and solar complement each other. Wind is generally strongest during non-peak solar hours and during winter. Solar is best during summer and around midday. (Also, wind still has a far better EROI than solar.) In some areas geothermal would make good sense. Japan is located along the ring of fire and has abundant geothermal capacity. (As do parts of the western US.) There’s biomass. And there’s research to improve existing and develop not yet viable technologies.

    Diversity isn’t just about different energy sources. It’s also about spreading them out over different locations, for wind especially different longitudes. To make that work you have to spend money on upgrading transmission infrastructure to an HVDC network that’s secured against extreme weather. The more diversified, the less back-up you need.

    The best money is spent on efficiency and investments that lead to lower resource and energy consumption. Whether this is compatible with an economic system that depends on growth is another discussion.

  4. Vivky, right, I was being cynical.

    Philip, I agree. At a later time I intent to spend the Chernobyl and three mile iskanc clean ups, and a couple if recent wars and bailouts, on various complementary projects!

  5. Interesting angle.

    I made my own calculations and ended up with about 20 GW of yearly averaged net solar power (photoelectric) for those 500 billion dollars. I took my efficiency data from this excellent source:

    In case you are not familiar with that tome already, maybe it is worth a check. The book itself is from 2008, but the “blog”-link in the sidepanel leads to more current updates.

    BTW. Giga should be abbreviated by a capital G not g.

  6. “happy anniversary fukushima” isn’t just cynical, it’s callous. If a Japanese person were to write “happy anniversary new york” on an update about 9/11, I doubt it would be treated as a cute little aside by your average American. You’re clearly using the disaster to make points about nuclear power, which is fine, but you don’t give the impression that you care overmuch about the actual people who were actually affected by this when you write such flippant things. Perhaps you should review some footage of the tsunami and ask yourself how the average American nuclear plant would cope? Or indeed how the average American would respond to a Japanese person cheerily writing “happy anniversary” a mere three years later.

    In response to your cost calculations, it’s worth noting that in the 1970s when the plant was built, solar power was not a viable choice, and in a country with no natural resources and no viable renewable energy choices, 250 billion dollars over the 40 year life of the plant is maybe not such a bad decision. You should actually annualize this cost and spread it over all the nuclear plants operating in Japan from 1970 – if you do that, and consider spending it in 1970, how much power would you have bought? Solar power in 1970 cost about 40 times what it does now. Spending your 250 billion now on viable solar tech now is not the question you need to answer. You also, of course, should apply a discount and take into account inflation. People considering spending 250 billion dollars in 40 years time don’t usually consider that 250 billion to be worth what it is now. In fact 250 billion now was 50 billion in 1970, and even adjusting for inflation that 50 billion would only have bought you 5 billion worth of solar power. So someone making power decisions in 1970 could have bought 5 billion worth of solar power with your cleanup costs.

    You also might want to consider the accrued greenhouse gasses that Japan would have emitted had it spent that money rationally on viable clean alternatives to nuclear power in the 1970s – ie gas – or the health costs if it had spent it on viable and heap alternatives – ie coal. I’ve no doubt if you dug into the documents you’d find that clean air was one of the reasons Japan chose the nuclear route.

    Maybe you should consider those aspects of the issue when you do your chernobyl and three mile island cleanups.

    Your estimate of cost is also clearly aimed at the wild high side of all possible estimates. You appear to have taken it from some random website ( which gives, for example, the cost of decommissioning the reactors at 9 to 88 billion dollars. The American Nuclear Society cites TEPCO putting it at 15 billion. Why are you citing a number which includes a high side estimate for decommissioning (including decommissioning reactors not affected by the disaster!) at 6 times the TEPCO estimate, and why are you including decommissioning at all when this cost is completely covered by the fund TEPCO established for this purpose over the operating life of the plant? Your figure of 250 is reduced by a third if you discount this inflated cost of decommissioning. So you have taken a figure from a website that is exaggerating and including numbers that aren’t actually related to the disaster, inflated by factors of 6, then taking the high end of their range, for your non-discounted estimates of what people in the 1970s should have considered.

    You might also want to consider how much nuclear power 500 billion $US can buy you. With a small investment in better disaster management (holding waste offsite, pumps nearby but away from the coastline), TEPCO could have saved 500 billion $US to spend on additional nuclear power plants. What amount of power would that have got you?

    Your calculations are misleading and your post is using them to make flippant and cynical points about a disaster that a lot of Japanese people take quite seriously. You should try to do the same.

  7. Capt’n, no, it’s cynical and has nothing to do with respect or lack thereof for the people of Japan.

    My calculations were not meant to compare solar at the time of Fukushima’s construction. I’m not sure why I would do that unless there was a working time machine.

    The numbers you are citing for the cleanup are lower than the numbers already spent, unfortunately.

    Yes, I was going for a high side estimate. That is usually how things turn out.

    “You might also want to consider how much nuclear power 500 billion $US can buy you.”

    I did, that’s in the post which you apparently only skimmed. You also skipped the part about being nice. You are not being nice.

  8. Wow, how on earth do you justify these ridiculous numbers? Is there a reason you dislike citing the source of these figures? The complete rebuilding of coastal Japan and the clean-up of fukushima is estimated at 300billiion USD. (

    I don’t see how this fits with your 250 to 500 bilion USD range. Moreover, the total cost of the three miles island disaster clean-up was a measly 1 billion USD. (

    Finally, how would we even go on using 20GW of solar energy? At the moment Germany is already having trouble getting rid of their excess daytime solar energy. (

    1. It is funny that most people have utterly missed the point. I don’t actually get to use the Fukushima nuclear cleanup money. They are doing something else with it. I just wanted a number that roughly matched some thing we could point to and be cynical about. I could have used the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq or the Deepwater Horizon cost, or the construction cost of a given nuclear power plant.

      The same exact people who will gleefully complain about how cost overruns always happen will insist that only dollars spent so far plus a small additional factor count. That is Nukapology math. The current estimated cost for decommissioning Fukushima reactor 1, according to the wiki is 100 billion. Two other reactors melted down, a fourth reactor has some serious problems which are causing decommissioning to be much worse.

      The source I cited says “The precise value of the abandoned cities, towns, agricultural lands, businesses, homes and property located within the roughly 310 sq miles (800 sq km) of the exclusion zones has not been established. Estimates of the total economic loss range from $250[iv]-$500[v] billion US.” here. This is the total cost of the disaster, not just the cleanup of the plant or decommissioning.

      A private think tank says the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could cost Japan up to 250 billion dollars over the next 10 years. The estimate is part of the Nuclear Safety Commission’s ongoing survey of opinions on the disaster from nuclear and other experts. Kazumasa Iwata, president of the Japan Center for Economic Research, gave the estimate on Tuesday. He said the costs of the accident could range from nearly 71 to 250 billion dollars. The figure includes 54 billion to buy up all land within 20 kilometers of the plant, 8 billion for compensation payments to local residents, and 9 to 188 billion to scrap the plant’s reactors. source

      The 500 billion dollar amount was from Fairwinds. But, of course, since Fairwinds is cautious about nuclear power, nukeapologists will go ballistic about any reference to them. Right?

      You’ve got to watch these nuclear guys closely. They lie and cheat all the time. Officially Chernobyle coast $15 billion of direct cost, but the accumulatd damages for the two countries most directly affected are over 600 billion dollars. So Chernobyl tends to get listed as a 15 billion dollar disaster but it is way,way more than that. I’m sure the same thing will develop with Fukushima. Most of the estimates are between 50 and 100 billion dollars for direct cleanup, eg thiswith only a small fraction of the work done. Is there any doubt whatsoever that this will go to between 100 and 200 billion dollars at the plant not counting Nukeapologist Math fudge factors? And when we go outside the plant to the fishing industry, costs to communities, etc. the cost will be much much higher.

      I’m comfortable with 500 billion for this particular number.

  9. I was also thinking of pricing out passive geothermal. If implemented in every home and building it could cut heating and cooling energy demand, which is a big part of what we do with energy, to less than half.

    But yes, let’s build a few of those high powered geothermal plants too!

  10. Greg,

    The cost of clean-up of Fukushima is one way to look at it, but how about direct subsidies (good ol’ US tax dollars) spent on various forms of energy production:

    “The Short Story on Subsidies:
    1. only taking some hidden coal subsidies out of the picture, coal would be 2-3 times more expensive than wind (and that’s if wind got absolutely no subsidies!);
    2. nuclear energy received as much in subsidies each year from 1950-1990 as wind had received in total up to 2007, $3.75 billion (even with all those subsidies, many of which continue today, nuclear can’t compete with other electricity sources)… and this is not taking into account considerable environmental and storage externalities;
    3. big oil got more money in tax breaks in 2011 alone ($4 billion) than the wind industry had received in total up to 2007 ($3.75 billion), and it is expected to get $77 billion more by 2021.
    In other words, wind power subsidies are nothing compared to fossil fuel and nuclear industry subsidies. Without subsidies, electricity prices would be:
    • Wind Power: 6-7 cents/kWh
    • Nuclear Power: 11-20+ cents/kWh
    • Coal Power: 9-32+ cents/kWh”

    Let’s compare your 500 billion total estimate to cleanup Fukushima to this:

    “Producers of oil, gas and coal received more than $500 billion in government subsidies around the world in 2011, with the richest nations collectively spending more than $70 billion every year to support fossil fuels.”
    That was $500 billion in subsidies for fossils in one year.

    Greg, when it comes to spending tax dollars flushed down the endless rathole of nukes and fossils, you’re really thinking small potatoes— imagine if we diverted all the money we give to billionaires to kill our planet, and instead flat-out paid to have wind, solar and geothermal installed as the exclusive sources of electricity generation worldwide. We could switch over completely in five to ten years (with capacity to spare), and save ourselves money in the process.

    But nukes and fossils are self-sustaining, right? Renewables rely oin subsidies to be competitive, right?

    If only reality would stop slapping the pro-nuke and pro-fossil dupes in the face.

  11. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of nukes as anyhting like a ‘clean’ or sensible source of energy:

    The U.S. Department of Energy and the operators of the nation’s only underground nuclear waste dump said Monday they are making plans to allow specially trained workers to enter the site for the first time in weeks after more than a dozen employees were exposed to low levels of radiation during a mysterious leak.

    Officials acknowledge they are in uncharted territory in responding to something that has never happened since the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant opened in 1999. The site is important to the nation’s efforts to clean up decades of Cold War-era waste, and administrators are eager to resume operations once they are convinced it’s safe to do so.

    WIPP has been shuttered since early February. Shipments were halted after a truck hauling salt through the repository’s tunnels caught fire, and nine days later the plant’s alarms were triggered by the radiation release.”

    Feelin’ better all the time about nukes, I tells ya’. Just keep smiling.

  12. Dear Greg,

    This is not how science is supposed to work. You don’t out of hand dismiss all data that does not fit your preconceived notion. If you want to declare that your preferred estimate of the costs is 500 billion, fine. But at least also mention the other figures and explain why you don’t agree with those estimates.

    No, “Nukeapologist Math fudge factors” is not a grounded or adult explanation.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that we should look at the entire estimated clean up cost. The wiki you link to estimates 100 billion, but not just for reactor 1 as you state, a cursory reading would learn that cited figure is for
    “Estimated at ¥10 trillion (US$ 100 billion) for decontaminating Fukushima and dismantling all reactors in Japan and considering long time damage to environment and economy, including agriculture, cattle breeding, fishery, water depuration, tourism”

    Unless I’m mistaken, this was a very sloppy citation on your part.

    I’ll accept the estimate of 71 to 250 billion dollars as holding weight, but again would like to draw your attention the the fact that 250 is the upper margin given here.

    Incidentally, the link to the 500 billion Fairwinds article does not work. Care to share the working link that you obviously used to base your opinion on?

    Also, I am not ballistic and I do not know who or what nuclear guys are, but if I meet one use your advice and wear my tinfoil hat while keeping in mind that they are all liars and cheats.

    I implore you to not cherry pick references when writing for something called “science blogs” and to be more careful with your citations.

  13. Dr Death, I think I might see your problem. You were thinking this is science. This is not science. This is me making a social and political point.

    Yes, you are right about that citation. My mistake. Hardly maters though, if, again, you refer back to the original point of this post. You are creating straw men then mowing them down. That is not very impressive.

    I can’t help you with Fairwinds site.

    I appreciate your comments, but I’m still going to spend 500 billion on my project.

  14. Fair enough, if the original point of the article is: I want to use 500 billion I found in the couch on solar panels, how would this impact the worlds energy supply? Then I completely agree with you and apologise for setting up straw men arguments.

    In my defence: mentioning Fukushima twelve times in the title, body and conclusion of the text does muddy the water.

  15. Greg you should really come to Germany. We spend about 100 billions already in “non-carbon based non-nuclear energy” , and… surprise… coal is booming, co2 emission are rising, energy prices are doubling the us average. Let’s call it a success.

  16. “why are you including decommissioning at all when this cost is completely covered by the fund TEPCO established for this purpose over the operating life of the plant?”

    Because even if adequate money for the purpose has already been set aside – which we are free to doubt, given the probable escalation of costs – the fact remains that at the societal level, a large quantity of actual resources will have to be expended to decommission those plants. It doesn’t just take the deletion of some zeroes from a bank account; it requires materials and labor and fossil fuels, which then can’t be utilized for another purpose. It also requires that more resources must be expended to keep repositories for contaminated waste functioning for millennia – or else other resources will be expended to treat cancers and birth defects – or if not, the deaths or unproductivity of the victims will reduce future availability of human capital. You can’t put out optimistic numbers about how much net energy a nuclear plant can supply or how cheaply without taking into account ALL of the costs in energy and other resources from the moment when ground is broken to the moment when the former plant site and all its wastes cease to be dangerous. TANSTAAFL.

  17. “You can’t put out optimistic numbers about how much net energy a nuclear plant can supply or how cheaply without taking into account ALL of the costs in energy and other resources from the moment when ground is broken to the moment when the former plant site and all its wastes cease to be dangerous.”

    Actually you can, at least estimate it. Let me explain with a taylor series expansion: You’re arguementing in the third order. Come on, there are first order problems, and a lot of second order ones, but really, you come with the “societal level”, “fossil fuels” etc.. There are good arguments against nuclear energy, but this is somehow, like a retreat from the good ones to the “might have some impact ones”.

  18. It is fair to consider the amount of available resources available to a society at large now and over time if, as increasingly appears to be the case, extraction of those resources cannot be indefinitely increased forever. If the resource “pie” at any given time will be of a given maximum size, then resources that are spent – whether by a megacorp, a government, or whatever – on maintaining repositories for toxic waste won’t be available to be spent on other things that society might want. As long as the pie gets bigger (and the benefits of waste production accrue to more than the most fortunate), this may be tolerable. If the pie starts shrinking, that will become an obligation many countries won’t want to meet.

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